Why Hasn’t the Web Killed SNL?

The latest issue of Entertainment Weekly has a piece on that comedy stalwart, Saturday Night Live, that almost reads like a surrender treaty. The article basically says that while there are some chuckles, the show just is a bit toothless, but that “Saturday Night Live is a pop cultural machine that’s likely to continue until producer Lorne Michaels decides to end it.” The show still averages 6.6 million viewers, but after not laughing through most of this season, I have to wonder why online video hasn’t finally killed Saturday Night Live?

It’s funny to look back on the different ways I’ve enjoyed the show. When I was a kid, I’d stay up late. In college, we’d have some drinks and watch with a dorm room full of people. There was a time when I just didn’t watch it at all (the bar years). Now with a DVR, I never miss an episode, and I can easily zip through the boring parts — and there are many, many boring parts. This isn’t meant to spark a “when did SNL start sucking” debate, but it seems like the most efficient way to watch the program anymore is just to wait and see which clips pop up on my social networks and watch those.

Built from five minute sketches, the show’s format is perfect for those with short attention spans, and fits even better on the web, where it can be easily broken up into snackable chunks. And Saturday Night Live has always been about the parts, rather than the whole. We remember “D*ck in a Box” and “I’m Gumby, Dammit” not the particular episodes that delivered those sketches.

Since it’s such a web friendly format, does anyone actually watch the whole 90 minute shebang from start to finish any more (do you)? When you DVR it, you can fast forward once you know a sketch is a dud. Blogs and social networks like Twitter and Facebook, will show what your friends are watching and talking about, and help you avoid the unfunny stuff entirely and zero in on what people are buzzing about.

People have been predicting the demise of SNL since pretty much the show began, and it’s still kicking around. I figured I wasn’t the first person to write about the web’s potential impact on the show, and I’m not. A Network World (of all places) headline from an October 2006 post reads “Will the Internet Kill SNL?” At the same time we talk about how the web will impact the show’s future, it’s important to remember that Saturday Night Live‘s Lazy Sunday was a pivotal moment for online video history and in particular, web video giant YouTube. That sketch went viral and exposed millions of people to the burgeoning service (and most likely inspired a generation of DIY comedians).

Thanks to video embeds and on-demand video services like Hulu, making sure you tune into the actual show just isn’t as important anymore. If there’s some pop culturally significant moment you missed, twenty of your friends will tweet about it and you can catch up right away. Given the topical nature of the show, there’s no sense in NBC imposing a delayed release window before putting it online because it would lose all value.

In a weird way, Saturday Night Live is more reliant on the web than ever — but that reliance could wind up eliminating the need for the show altogether. Or not. It’s a whole chicken and egg thing. Plus, as Entertainment Weekly concludes: “It may be an old habit, this Saturday Night Live, but we don’t seem to want to shake our addiction.”

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